HOOVER, Ala. — Four times a week, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and a fleet of receivers meet for throwing sessions that could end up shaping the senior’s legacy.
In June, Tuesdays and Thursdays were dedicated to throwing subtly tweaked routes with veterans — such as darting junior Jarvis Landry — or the newcomers — like the lanky, straight-ahead burner that is junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie.
Tales of the workouts are cryptic, but a potentially revived passing game under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is a priority for a squad picked Thursday to finish third in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division.
It also might render a verdict on Mettenberger’s time in Baton Rouge.
“It’s one way or the other,” he said. “It’s not in between for a guy’s legacy. You’re either a winner or loser.”
By now, the stats tracking an anemic passing game are familiar.
LSU ranked 11th in the SEC in 2012, averaging just 200.3 passing yards. Raw production is one problem, but the Tigers’ inability to stretch the field with Mettenberger’s arm was readily apparent. Of its 356 completions, only 94 went for 10-plus yards, which ranked 11th, and the majority of those (50) were between 10 and 20 yards.
Bluntly put, the Tigers lacked vertical punch. Cameron’s hiring and expertise — along with a strain of the Air Coryell offense and extensive tutoring — were supposed to remedy that, but the changes haven’t been drastic.
“It’s nothing really different,” Landry said. “We’re still going to have our quick game. We’re still going to attack vertically. It’s just the sets week in and week out that we’re in. It just comes down to our ability to execute.”
Expecting an outright overhaul might be too much to ask. Hired in February, Cameron said he planned to blend his style with what LSU has always predicated its offense on — a power run game and efficient passing attack.
“We’ve always wanted to be a balanced team,” head coach Les Miles said. “Cam has certainly allowed us to do that more. I think he throws the ball down the field extremely well. I think those are things you’ll see in the offense as we go forward.”
Mettenberger implied there won’t be a tectonic shift in the offensive philosophy under Miles, even after he imported his longtime friend and a coach with impressive credentials.
“There are still things we’ll still have seen and know,” said Mettenberger, who passed for 2,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. “The biggest thing that’s overlapping is the style of play he wants is something that’s been ingrained here at LSU for a long time. Even when I’m gone and he’s gone, it’s going to be the same.”
So if the scheme isn’t dramatically tweaked, any improvements come from time alone: more throws to receivers, more tweaks to Mettenberger’s throwing motion and more familiarity with the playbook.
“It’s our offense, his throwing motion,” Miles said. “It’s being accessible to his teammates. It’s not like going and taking my pitching wedge, I’ve got to keep my elbow in and my hips coming through. We are working on mechanics, his ability to lead a team and do the things we need to do.”
Fine-tuning Mettenberger’s mechanics isn’t noticeable to most, whether it’s altering where his toe points to the target on the throw, how he hitches at the top of his drop or keeping eyes downfield and alert during progressions.
“It’s nothing dramatic,” he said. “It’s not like I’m Tim Tebow and have terrible mechanics.”
Then there’s the issue of drops, which at times last season became an irksome habit. In the spring, Cameron had assistant coaches track drops in practice, emphasizing sure-handedness.
That improvement may come in time — more reps and constructive discussion between Mettenberger and Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., Kadron Boone and new arrivals Leslie and freshman Tre’Davious White.
“The mental errors are really starting to go down,” Mettenberger said. “Guys are getting smarter. Guys are staying in the playbooks and knowing what to do. They’re able to read defenses. That’s something special, to see guys grow and know what they need to do (as well as) what situation and other guys are going.”
The emergence of White and Leslie as deep threats could open space underneath for quick throws and the intermediate passing game. Landry spoke of working on picking up yards after the catch and making more plays after the ball finds him.
“It’s (Mettenberger’s) ability to throw us open,” Landry said. “We know we’re not going to get pretty balls, perfect balls all the time, but he’s been doing a great job putting it chest-level or higher for us to have a chance to make a play after the catch.”
Mettenberger endured a rocky transition as a first-year SEC starter. But in the final five games of the season, he passed for 1,190 yards and five touchdowns while completing 61.9 percent of his passes. In the spring game, Cameron put playcalling duties in his starter’s hands, forcing him to do the mental work of accounting for down, distance, time, alignment and coverage.
“I’m not going to go out there against like I did against North Texas at the time in awe,” Mettenberger said. “I’ve been through a season, and it’s going to be easier to sit back, relax and play the game.”
Follow Matthew Harris on Twitter at @MHarrisAdvocate.